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Arts and Entertainment

It's A Dead End Party

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What better way to wake up an Ahmanson audience than by having four swimsuit-clad ripped New York street kids, including the gorgeous, barely-legal Ricky Ullman, cannonball into a giant pool of water in the orchestra pit? Dead End, the first of 21 plays scheduled by Center Theatre Group's new artistic director Michael Ritchie, begins with a splash and ends with a song. We've never seen a large crowd of old theatre-goers pay better attention to the story than in this little-known Sidney Kingsley play.

Dead End, directed to perfection by Nicholas Martin, is the story of a bunch of New York East End kids trying to survive in a Depression-era neighborhood of increasing violence. This exuberant play thrives on pranks, love stories, gangsters, hookers, and head lice, and when it reaches sentiment, it feels completely justified. The large cast, including everyone from the stunning Joyce Van Patten to a bunch of USC acting students, evokes the feeling of a complete city.

The Everyman of the show is Gimpty (Tom Everett Scott), a lame, unemployed architect in love with a woman out of his class. He used to be a street kid himself, and looks out for the local gang, especially Tommy (Ricky Ullman), the smartest of the bunch. Gimpty spends much of the first act sitting by the river, watching and waiting. He is drawn into action when an old friend, the irrepressible, scene-stealing Baby-Face Martin (Jeremy Sisto) comes back to town. Martin is wanted for murdering eight men, but he won't leave the old neighborhood until he sees his mother and his former girlfriend.

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Gimpty realizes the only way he can afford to marry Kay (the quietly beautiful Sarah Hudnut) is by turning Martin in to the cops and collecting the reward. A parallel storyline involving gang members snitching on Tommy takes a turn for the worse. Gimpty gets the money, but everything doesn't work out. When the more serious, adult plot catches up to the East End Boys at the end, the result is heartbreaking. Tommy is sent to prison, even after he confesses willingly.

It's worth it to see Dead End just for Tommy's sister Drina (an incredible Kathryn Hahn). She began in group scenes as a kind of comic relief, washing her brother's head with kerosene and yelling down the street, "Come home, Tommy!" But she turns into a tragicomic jilted lover, and finishes as a strong woman defending her kid brother. Hahn plays the role so subtly that you ignore Drina, just as Gimpty ignores her - until she takes over the show.

This production was successful because it has a sense of danger. Someone is always running up the stairs, or diving into the pool, or slamming doors, or jumping down ladders. Kids get beat up. What differentiates theatre from film is the possibility of something unexpected going wrong, like someone dying on stage. A sign in the lobby warned that not only would there be cigarette smoking, gunshots, and flashing lights, but (gasp!) the possibility of some audience members getting wet. Theatre elitists, meet Splash Mountain - or Gallagher.

Dead End has all the melodrama of a musical, the grit of a black-and-white movie, and the plot of a Dickens novel. Although we will never, ever, ever forgive CTG's new artistic director Michael Ritchie for disbanding the playwrights' labs at the Taper, we have to say that he's certainly started this Ahmanson season off with a bang. We loved Dead End, and we're going to try to go see it again.

Dead End performs every day except Monday from now until October 16. Exorbitantly expensive tickets are available online at www.taperahmanson.com, and half price tickets for selected performances at Goldstar Events. CTG also has $20 HOT TIX online. You can also, as their box office suggests, "call CTG's Acclaimed Audience Services Line at 213-628-2772." Acclaimed? We always thought our customer service skills at LAIST were rather special, but no one has ever acclaimed them.

Enough poking fun at the big guy. For all the endearing blunders and extravagances of CTG, and their Bushlike deficit, we've got to love them for putting their mouth where their money is this time. This is a great show, no one else in LA could have afforded to produce it, and we're very lucky that Michael Ritchie stepped up to do it. Here's hoping the rest of his season takes as many risks, and that CTG gets back in black soon enough.